The four-time Olympic gold medalist and 25-time World Championships medalist Simone Biles has more than her fair share of things to be confident about.
But as a young black girl competing in a sport historically dominated by white and Asian athletes, Biles didn’t always boast the self-assurance she now exudes as the greatest gymnast in the history of the sport.
While promoting her partnership with the skincare brand SK-II, Biles spoke at length about her struggles with social-media trolls, the public fixation on her appearance, and the effect race had on both. Biles and several other Olympic athletes joined the company’s Beauty is #NoCompetition campaign, which draws attention to the toxic role physical appearance often plays in women’s sports.
“Growing up, you don’t see a lot of African American gymnasts,” Biles said during a promotional event moderated by the television personality and journalist Katie Couric. “I remember when Gabby Douglas won I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, if she can do it, then I can do it.’”
“Then I wanted to work harder,” she added.
Work hard she did. And despite enduring adversity and occasional bouts of racism along the way, it paid off in spades.
Biles rapidly ascended to the pinnacle of the gymnastics world, winning the all-around gold medal in every World Championship she’s competed in since 2013. But it was her dominant performance at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro three years after the start of her World Championship reign that catapulted the then-19-year-old into an international celebrity.
She’s since made a habit of walloping her competition with a level of dominance rarely seen at the highest levels of any sport, nonetheless one in which razor-thin margins of victory are the norm. And that level of success has brought with it a powerful platform upon which Biles has become an inspiration to black children the same way Douglas — the three-time Olympic gold medalist — inspired her early in her own career.
“I feel like I have instilled confidence in little African Americans all over the world,” Biles said. “I feel like if I can do it, then you can do it. But it was a struggle growing up because you don’t see many of your kind so you just try to break that barrier.”
Biles added that World Champions Center — the gymnastics facility in Spring, Texas, owned by her parents — regularly played host to many athletes of color
“Personally we have a lot of them come to our gym so that’s really exciting.”
Race is far from the only appearance-based issue Biles has been forced to contend with throughout her career. The intense scrutiny associated with coming of age in the public eye — which Biles says is exacerbated by social media — can put extra pressure on someone like Biles to conform to certain societal standards for beauty, however unattainable they may be.
“I’ve gotten a lot of comments over the past couple of years about how my hair looks, how my calves are too big, my arms are too big, I don’t look like the average girl in today’s age, I have too many muscles,” Biles said. “All of those things were pretty hurtful, but at the end of the day it’s obviously taken years and time and maturity, but I’ve realized I can’t do what I do without the muscles … It’s taken some time, but I’ve accepted it.”
“You feel uncomfortable with your body and then you have everybody online saying this is what you should or shouldn’t look like,” she added. “I would cry a lot and I’d try not to look at the comments.”
As part of the campaign with SK-II, Biles and her fellow brand ambassadors starred in a series of cartoons illustrating various toxic ramifications of the societal fixation on physical appearance within women’s sports and beyond.
A first look at Biles’ cartoon debuted in New York City’s Times Square this week: